Mad Kings and Fairy Tales



Once upon a time (in the latter part of the 19th century), there lived a king who rode out in the night, his horses cantering by the light of the moon until the first hint of dawn, when his coachman turned the horses’ heads towards home. He was a fairy king living in a fairy palace and also a very real king who ruled over the land known as Bavaria.  This was Ludwig the Second, otherwise known as Mad King Ludwig or the Moon King, Swan King, Märchenkönig (Fairy Tale King) and other names earned through his pursuit of beauty, as he saw it, and his neglect of public affairs and duties, as court intrigue and some of his citizens claimed. His life style was certainly extraordinary.  He ate so many cream pastries that his teeth rotted away.  Often, his sole dinner companion was his mare, Miss Grey who joined him at a table lavishly set with fine china, silver and crystal, the table and its provisions having been sent up via a pulley system from the kitchen below. They ate companionably as a rule, but from time to time Miss Grey (an English name with English spelling), who, despite being an equine was not always of an equable disposition, would kick her legs and send the table with its contents flying.  Then His Majesty would pull on a golden rope, the ruined table and smashed dishes would descend to the kitchen and a new, freshly-laid table would rise up in its place.

One of the Grimm’s fairy tales of a father with three sons, is called “Tischlein Deck Dich” in German (“Little table, deck thyself”) and might have entered Ludwig’s imagination as a child.  A great Romanticist in the German tradition (which included the brothers Grimm and their massive project of collecting the folk and fairy tales of the country). Ludwig became an intense admirer of Richard Wagner, the man and his work. Wagner’s operas, comprising the Ring of the Niebelungen and others, were based on Norse epics and Germanic sagas, the source of Wagnerian mythology.  At Ludwig’s main castle of Neuschwanstein, where still now thousands of tourists flock daily and which Disney took as his model for the palace of Sleeping Beauty, Ludwig built a grotto of Venus (nearly half a century before the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams), a cave containing a lake where swans glide across the surface and the painted scenery makes a perfect backdrop for a young Lohengrin or Siegfried to step forth before a small audience of royal visitors as colored lights play over the water and the grotto fills with music.

Neuschwanstein was only one of his castles. The others were also massive building projects, constructed with rich materials (thousands of tons of marble) and in styles that never ventured far from “Castle Romanticism,” an obvious precursor of Hollywood Extravaganza, fabulous and fantastic, built to accommodate the longings of a lonely monarch who had never committed himself to adulthood and chose instead to live in fairyland.

Perhaps some readers are now thinking of our current pre-adolescent Ruler and his many “palaces,” but this would be unjust to Ludwig, whose passion was for art, for a higher calling, a yearning for the glory of former times, but hardly what Trump envisions with his lost America. Ludwig’s had nothing to do with jobs or deregulation. His world was peopled by Rhine maidens and speaking swords, and “greatness” did not lie in amassing huge amounts of money, avoiding taxes, stiffing employees, selling one’s country’s birthright for a mess of rubles and considering the arts, sciences, rights of man and the continued existence of the planet as basically a waste of time. As for pussy-grabbing, Ludwig decidedly had no interest.  A homosexual at a time when this inclination simply did not exist or at best was considered depraved, he had no intimates except for his cousin Elisabeth, known as Sissi.  The Empress of Austria-Hungary, she was a great beauty with a 16-inch waist, one of Europe’s top horsewomen and something of an intellectual as well.  She spoke and read many languages, built herself a small pink palace on the island of Corfu in Greece and secluded herself there, away from Emperor Franz-Josef and his stodginess, devotion to duty, mistresses and lack of fantasy.  In Greece, she translated Shakespeare, wrote her own poetry, and insisted on conversing with the Queen of Greece in Greek, a language the imported majesty could speak not a word of, being of an aristocratic German family and lacking the wit or will to learn even so much as the language of her subjects.

Elisabeth and Ludwig were childhood playmates, companions on their flights of imagination. “My Eagle!” she called him; and she was his Swan. They were Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, a family that married into the royalty of almost all European powers, though these two did not have the temperament for governance.  Both of them tried (Ludwig II ascended the throne at the age of 18, the same age as Sissi’s Franz Josef when he became emperor), and were successful to some degree, but they lived for art and beauty, they courted speed and needed solitude, monarchs larger than life but at the same time skittish and shy, like wild creatures caught in their respective cages.  Both of them ended badly, Sissi shot to death by an anarchist just outside Geneva; Ludwig mysteriously drowned in a few inches of water in Lake Starnberg.

They were mad perhaps; certainly they were passionate; Sissi helped cement the twin nations of Hungary and Austria into one empire, but then she absconded. The terrible death of her son Crown Prince Rudolph at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in a double suicide pact with his young mistress Mary Vetsera was more than she could bear.  Like her, Rudolph was a liberal, a multi-nationalist, a writer.  He was continually hounded and spied upon by both the German Kaiser and his own father’s ministers.  His death changed the possible future of Europe and drove his mother into her self-enforced exile in her pink Greek villa.

Ludwig’s death had come earlier. In June of 1886 Ludwig was deposed and taken prisoner at Berg, a gloomy castle by the shores of Lake Starnberg. His grandfather Ludwig I had also been deposed.  The first Ludwig was a worshipper of the arts too, and architecture, particularly of the Middle Ages.  Both grandfather and grandson lived as if in an opera, their castles the stages on which they strutted their hours of greatness, though for Ludwig I the greatest passion of all was women, and in particular Lola Montez.  An Irish singer and actress who had tried unsuccessfully to make a career as a Spanish dancer in Paris and London, Lola came to Munich in 1846 and very soon thereafter met the king, who asked (in public) if her admirable bosom was real.  She replied by throwing off her blouse and showing him.  He was hooked.  She became his mistress and obsession, given full rein (or reign) to do as she liked.  Lola, with her sharp tongue and short fuse, had so much power over palace officials (and such fondness for money) that Ludwig’s government became known as the Lolaministerium.

The first Ludwig was not popular among his people and was deposed after many protest demonstrations by students and workers. It was not that way with  Ludwig II, who was benevolent and generally tolerated by his people, though they did not rally to his support when he was accused of mismanagement of funds and madness.

Ludwig knew of the forthcoming arrest before it happened. Though his household urged him to escape, he insisted that a king does not flee, and remained in Neuschwanstein when shortly after midnight guards rushed in to take him prisoner.  Doctor von Gudden, the psychiatrist, read the charges.  As his valet wept, Ludwig turned to the doctor. “How did you manage to declare me insane?  You haven’t even examined me.”

At four in the morning King Ludwig, accompanied by a few members of his personal staff, made his last journey through the night.  Next day, on June 13, (Whitsunday) at 6 in the evening, the King suggested a stroll.  Von Gudden, pleased by His Majesty’s reasonableness, agreed.  They walked together towards the lake, wearing overcoats against the unseasonable cold and carrying umbrellas against oncoming rain.

By seven they had not returned. At eight there was still no sight of them, but because of the heavy downpour it was assumed that they had  taken shelter somewhere. At nine every man at Berg was scouring the area.  On the water, not far from shore, floated a black object.  It was the King’s overcoat.

Both bodies were recovered near the bank, in shallow water. The King’s watch had stopped at 6:54; von Gudden’s neck and shoulders revealed bruises, though the King’s body was unmarked.

“All men,” said Mrs. Malaprop, “are Bavarians.”

Eccentricity in kings is not unusual, though it may be dangerous, as we know from Hamlet (“Madness in great ones must not watched go” – Claudius.)  Madness, eccentrics, fairy tales: it’s a question of degree.  High office can lead to high offense.  The eccentricity of  aristocrats has often amused us: Wittelbachs or Habsburgs, British lords in their wigs or Duchesses in their salons confirmed that the privileged classes were able to use their rank and fortune to do whatever they damn pleased (“so long as it doesn’t upset the horses,” as Lady Wortley Montagu observed in the 18th century.)

Mad King Trump is of the family Drumpf (his grandfather, Friedrich, came to the U.S. in 1885 to avoid military service) of Kallstadt, a small town in what was then Bavaria (now Rhineland-Palatinate.) If Mrs. Malaprop spoke the unwitting truth, then indeed he is Bavarian, though whether or not, Barbarian will serve.  It was first used referring to the foreigners trying to get into Rome at the time of the Roman Empire – people we today call immigrants.  Barbarian also means savage or uncouth – you might go so far as “feral.”  He is everything that civilization is not, that civility is not, that citizens are not.  And even looking back at the famous Mad Kings of his own ancestral country, Trump is not only mad, he is filled to the gills with anger in a world that consists only of himself.  Small wonder he rages.  But his world is no more real than his words are true. If this is an opera we’re in, it’s the very worst ever written, full of histrionic babbling, rants instead of arias, devoid of music and beauty and sense. He is an emperor with no clothes, “a tattered coat upon a stick” (Yeats.)   The greatest danger lies in our compliance.